Like a canary in a coal mine, the holiday season shows us how well our deepest values are being lived. As individuals, as families, neighborhoods, communities, what we think matters most comes to the surface at this time of year. What do we really care about? What are our deepest values? How do we respond to the spiritual demand of Christmas?
The morning after Thanksgiving last year, I opened three different holiday e-cards that all played instrumental versions of “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker song about the joys of simple living. They were sent with genuinely warm feelings reminding me of the quiet place of friendship that helps us sail through the storms of day-to-day life.
Then I saw on the front page of our local paper a story about a shopper who beat other bargain hunters ahead of her at a Black Friday sale by pepper-spraying them, and the snatch-and-grab robberies of holiday shoppers heading to their cars with middle-of-the-night mall bargains.
In December, sharing and giving contend with getting and having, and the contrast couldn’t be more stark. It can be a struggle to keep the Christmas spirit amid all the people and tasks vying for our time and energy. As we head into the rest of December, we hear about “good cheer fatigue.” Gift buying, entertaining, and keeping up with a ramped-up holiday schedule become a marathon. The lights and music, holiday events and parties, somehow don’t meet our real yearning for what is at the heart of Christmas.
Giving a scriptural perspective on the modern dilemma, Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote: “We cannot serve both God and mammon at the same time; but is not this what frail mortals are trying to do? Paul says: ‘The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.’ Who is ready to admit this?” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” pp. 346-347). This applies to so many aspects of contemporary life, and it certainly rings true at this time of year.
I remember years spent trying to orchestrate the perfect activities to make the perfect Christmas. But no combination of contrived plans came close to fulfilling the promise of the day. I had to admit that my attempts didn’t succeed in creating the essential goodness that I associate with Christmas. Slowly, the lesson came home to me that the holiday is really about the Christ sense of life lived in the here and now. Immanuel, which translates as “God with us,” is more often found in quiet moments of gratitude and real affection, in thoughts directed by a desire to bless and to share good.
At Christmas, perhaps more than any other time, the challenge is clear: Are we engaged with the simple gifts – the spiritual sense of divine Life and Love? Or are we caught up in the holiday rush? In practical terms, how can we meet this spiritual demand?
The answer, I think, lies in first recognizing that we are not the ones who meet the need. God, divine Love, is the real source of the spiritual qualities that we associate with Christmas. And it is the Christ that makes it possible for us to “keep Christmas well,” not only in December, but all year round.
The Christ, which Jesus so perfectly embodied, is our natural connection with Life, Truth, and Love. It is what is written in all our hearts. As Jesus put it: “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. Men cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you” (Luke 17:20, 21, J.B. Phillips translation).
When people are asked what matters most to them, they overwhelmingly respond “love,” “family,” “loved ones.” Across the board, profoundly simple things top our list of what is meaningful and truly lasting. It is spiritual qualities, such as kindness, honesty, and generosity, that give life its real meaning.
It often seems easier and more practical to go with the flow of a material sense of life, reacting to tempting images of fleeting satisfaction. But sooner or later we realize that dependable comfort and enduring joy are what we truly need.
More than simply shifting the emphasis from getting to giving, more than managing a harmonious holiday gathering, getting the right things for the right people, and engaging in a little charity, what really makes Christmas meaningful is cherishing the recognition of God’s presence. At Christmas we come face to face with the image of what that divine presence enables us to be. My plan this year is to take advantage of the focus on light and love and build my holiday on that.
Watch this column during December for further insights on how people have found more of the true meaning of Christmas.